By Brad Perkins, Contributing Editor
With the damage from Super Storm Sandy fresh in their minds, convenience store owners would have been right to be concerned when Hurricane Joaquin barreled toward the Atlantic Coast in late September.
As they know all too well, devastating hurricanes—and other natural disasters—can wreak havoc on businesses and communities, leaving closed roads, power outages and dwindling supplies.
Convenience store owners have a dual problem when disasters strike—they must prepare to serve the community while also ensuring their employees and businesses remain safe. Since convenience stores are often the first stop for many before and after a disaster, they can be a source of relief for their communities. But only if they are prepared with a comprehensive disaster plan.
Unfortunately, according a study by the Sage Group, only 38% of U.S. businesses have a formal disaster plan. And that’s a shame, because the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) estimates that 40% of businesses damaged in a disaster don’t reopen. So stores in hurricane-affected areas—and others in areas not susceptible to hurricanes but to other natural and man-made disasters—would be right to ask, how do we prepare?
MAKING A LIST
Even if your store has a plan, it pays to review it often, according to industry experts. And if the store doesn’t have one, preparing a comprehensive disaster plan such as those found on www.ready.gov, which covers safety of businesses and employees, is vital. It should include processes to ensure the safety, health and welfare of the organization. The plan should also consider making backups of insurance documents and other paper forms and ensuring they’re stored electronically or in a waterproof container, as well as knowing the extent of insurance, flood coverage and any other coverage that relates to property, both business and personal. It should also cover ways to keep the lights on, freezers stocked and gas flowing, such as using genera- tors and alternative power sources.
“The first concern is going to be safety of employees and what those practices are and then protection of structure and business itself,” said Ned Bowman, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association. “The number one goal is to protect people. If we have a category five storm coming in, we also have to board up our houses and get out of harm’s way. After that, we will do what we have to do to service the community.”
At Tom Thumb Food Stores, which operates 15 convenience stores and nine Subway locations from Key West, Fla., north to the city of Ft. Lauderdale, mostly along the main hurricane evacuation routes, planning begins months before the start of hurricane season.
“We begin the process of planning in April,” said Rick Klyczek, director of operations at Tom Thumb Food Stores. “We have a checklist of items we audit to ensure they are in place at each location in the event of a storm; items such as employees’ names, contact numbers and e-mail addresses are gathered and kept updated by store managers. We audit front door keys, security codes for securing the store, plastic wrap and zip ties (to secure nozzles and wrap the top of pumps prior to the storm), shutter keys, flashlights, batteries and calculators.”
This allows the stores to be able to serve the community after a storm. But this availability is affected by the severity of the storm, the store’s location and whether the store lost power or roads are blocked.
For convenience stores that are able to use generators to keep the business open, the benefit to the community often goes beyond supplying gas and necessities.
“In the aftermath, if you are a store up and running and can provide snacks and milk and ice, there is going to be a positive impact to your store, but also to the local area and economy,” said Samantha Padgett, general counsel of the Florida Retail Federation. “For those stores that are able to be up and running after impact, the financial impact is significant, but more so the goodwill to the community and the service to the community.”
KEEPING THE LIGHTS ON
Having use of a generator in the event of a disaster is often more than good business, but the law. In Florida, for example, a law requires service stations to have transfer switches and alternative energy sources if they meet the following criteria: those with at least eight fuel pumps in counties with at least 100,000 people; stations operating 12 pumps in counties with 100,000-300,000 people; and those operating 16 pumps in counties with more than 300,000.
Additionally, companies with more than 10 service stations in one county must also have a portable generator at each site. In other states, grants are often available to finance the purchase of generators in historically hard-hit areas. So for many businesses, the question isn’t whether to buy them, but what kind and how soon.
Tom Thumb operates two Florida locations with fixed generators—one in Key Largo and one in Marathon—and while the company has not had to use them in recent years, the peace of mind in having them is significant, as it helps with disaster planning and the ability to respond when needed.
“A fixed generator provides a guarantee that you will have the ability to operate immediately after the storm passes and assist the community in which they reside to begin the process of clean-up and restoration,” Klyczek said. Fixed generators are those installed permanently in one location. They have an automatic transfer switch to move power to it in the event of power loss. The benefit is that they become available immediately, averting monetary loss and allowing those looking for gas or supplies along an escape route to get fuel and supplies.
However, the cost is greater than for a towable generator. Portable, or towable, generators on the other hand can be moved from location to location, often on a contract basis based upon need and ability to get to that area. But they need to be delivered, which becomes an issue when roads are blocked or only first responders are allowed into certain neighborhoods.
“A towable generator would provide more flexibility in the event of storm,” Klyczek said. “That is, you can use it where you need it.”
When choosing a generator, it helps to consider the costs involved in systems failing or being out of business for a few days. In some cases, a fixed generator would pay for itself almost immediately because it allows business to stay open or get back online quickly. In other instances, it might be more feasible to have a rented portable generator delivered by a contractor, along with other supplies.
“Generators are a substantial investment,” Klyczek said. “Understanding what equipment you will need or want to run during a power outage will guide you in purchasing the right size equipment. Purchasers should also understand generators require monthly routine maintenance and an annual check up to ensure the equipment functions when you need it.”
But including them as part of a disaster plan can help both your business and neighbors. Having fuel and supplies available for those leaving the area or rescue personnel coming inside the store builds goodwill with customers.
Having an emergency preparedness scheme that safeguards people as well as property ensures that employees are informed and prepared. Regardless of how a convenience store chooses to use a generator or to develop its plan, knowing potential threats and how to react to them is important to protecting your business, employees and customers.
“The best practices in planning ahead are preparation, communication and monitoring the storm,” Klyczek said. “In today’s environment we have weeks to prepare and to build our plan.”